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Drawing out the demons and dreams of Fukushima

Artist's work with the marginalized takes him around the world and back to the place he once called home

by Kris Kosaka

Geoff Read, artist and activist, hopes one portrait can echo thousands of miles. His poignant “artistic collaborations” indeed reverberate with the whispers of society’s marginalized.

For more than 20 years, his collaborations have detailed the lives of homeless people from Mexico to England to Japan, and Read has also used art to help in drug rehabilitation and occupational therapy. His current focus: to broadcast the suspended dreams of Fukushima’s children.

As Read explains, “In my Strong Children Japan Project, the most important thing the pictures can do is to help these children to have a safer childhood.”

Strong Children Japan showcases Read’s distinctive approach to portraitures, refined through his years of work within alienated communities around the world.

“What I find most interesting is to create portraits, which is something that I enjoy doing, but it is also a very good way of connecting with people,” the Briton, 55, explains. “If someone has a difficult life struggle in some way, it feels good to have a portrait made, since usually only people who are successful have that luxury, because they are famous or because they can afford it.

“I gradually evolved the approach of offering myself as an individual person’s artist-in-residence. Through the portrait, I try to show the person’s own ideas about what they are trying to do, what their circumstances are, how they see themselves and their connection to the world and what has happened to them.”

In the case of Strong Children Japan, Read paints those he knows personally. Read, his Japanese wife and young son were living in Fukushima at the time of the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster. His mother-in-law grew up in the Oku-Aizu region of western Fukushima. Read and his family moved from England in 2009, eager to raise their young son in a pastoral paradise they had not found in England.

“We had visited Fukushima before we moved there, and I thought it was such a beautiful place and the relationships between people were so strong,” he says. “They communicate through gifts of vegetables, and it is natural in the countryside to greet people with ‘Hello, have some corn,’ or ‘Good day, try this sweet potato.’ You almost can’t talk to people without them giving you something.

“I really wanted to learn that for my own life and our son’s, to experience it myself and tell others — because you do miss those connections in modern urban life. We don’t really know our neighbors, and if we do, we may just be arguing over a parking space.”

Read and his family struggled to stay in Fukushima after the tragedy.

“We self-evacuated for three weeks, and when it seemed the air radiation had calmed down, we moved back to see if it might be sustainable, to see if we could justify any possible risks to our son,” Read recalls. “We felt a very strong commitment to our community. We were very strongly linked with our son’s friends, the hardworking teachers and my wife’s family. We felt a very strong connection and responsibility to that community, so we wanted to try and give it a go.”

Recording the stories of local children with his art came naturally to Read in that turbulent time.

“With the kind of artwork I do, doing the pictures is just the beginning. It should be a process, a circle, starting with the meeting between me and the person, going out into the world and back.

“We create the artwork together, but it is really my responsibility to make the image work in the way the children want it to, and get it seen by as many people as possible, and I especially feel this working with Fukushima’s children. It is very important that people actually see who these children are, and what their feelings about life are, because they are going to be controversial and argued about for a long time.”

As Read explains on his website: “The artwork is based on the principle that children are strongest and most resilient when they are listened to, respected and encouraged to think creatively and be active citizens. Developing their own ideas about their situation, noticing their own emotions, talking and making links with other people and the wider world also encourages them to take a proactive part in life.”

Read prioritizes the children’s own designs and image ideas, and the resulting artwork combines the children’s drawings with Read’s portrait of the child. Read hopes the works become a springboard for action.

“The art should make people think and talk about the topic — in this case, obviously, nuclear energy, what happens in a disaster, and what should happen. Then, if people see the image and are concerned about the children, they can respond to that in some way. Maybe they’ll write a letter to the Japanese ambassador or maybe they’ll write to the British newspapers and question our own disaster planning here in the U.K.”

The exhibition has traveled all the way from Fukushima and Hiroshima to the corridors of Parliament in England. In the House of Commons in London, Read gave a talk as part of a seminar against nuclear energy to commemorate the second anniversary of March 11.

The family is now back in England. Life in Fukushima proved too stressful, as their faith in government steadily dwindled.

“At the time, the authorities were still in absolute denial, and they were not prepared to respond seriously to the radiation issues,” Read explains. “Initially, there was no testing of food and hardly any of the environment, and it was patently obvious the information we were getting was not trustworthy. We were pressing the local authorities to get proper testing equipment and to stop feeding the children local food until we were able to conduct testing because of the risks. But the thing that made it emotionally possible for us to leave was another natural disaster.”

Read lived in Kaneyama. After a rain-deluged July in 2011, the houses along the Tadami River were flooded, including Read’s.

“It was another man-made disaster, this time connected to a huge downpour; a wall of water came down, damaging dams and smashing houses. I really admire the workers and volunteers who risked their own safety, but the institutional complacency beforehand and inadequate evacuation plan were similar to the questionable procedures for Fukushima (No. 1 nuclear plant), and we just thought, ‘That’s enough.’ “

Currently, the exhibition can be seen at the community center in Showa, Fukushima Prefecture, with pictures from a sister project in Toowoomba, Queensland. Inspired by Read’s work, an Australian living in Fukushima at the time of the disaster started a similar project in Queensland, giving local children affected by flooding in Australia the chance to communicate their own worries and dreams with the children of Fukushima. Another recent project took Read to Hiroshima, where he helped create inspiring messages to Fukushima’s children from Hiroshima’s atomic bomb survivors.

“The Hiroshima peace exhibition organizers invited me to show the children’s pictures as part of the peace exhibition and conference they have every year,” he says. “I had a chance to meet some hibakusha, and I felt there was an important connection to be made. Sadly, in its history, Japan has suffered three of the world’s major nuclear disasters, and I have visited each of them. We evacuated first to Hiroshima and then visited Nagasaki. I think it is important to think about the experiences of the hibakusha who had to fight long and hard for recognition of their health problems.

“I was impressed and touched that there was a natural sympathy coming from the people I met in Hiroshima, who felt a very strong connection with Fukushima’s children. I wanted to make portraits that could act as a conduit for that empathy.”

Although Read trained as a fine artist at Newcastle Polytechnic, now Northumbria University, in northeast England, he says he has never worried much about using his art to make money.

“I think most creative people live hand to mouth, using different bits and pieces of work to support themselves while focusing on their art. Creative people tend to value time rather than money and I’ve always managed to get by with a variety of jobs, teaching work, editing, graphic design, illustration, gardening. Having the time to do interesting things is more important to me.” So too, it seems, is helping those in need.

On Saturdays, Telling Lives profiles interesting individuals with links to Japan. For more information, please see strongchildrenjapan.blogspot.jp or www.facethestreet.com. Send comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.